The Long Beach Grand Prix (LBGP) sprang from the efforts of Chris Pook and a track design courtesy of Dan Gurney. From a conversation in 1974 to the inaugural running on September 28, 1975, the streets of Long Beach have witnessed the roar of Formula 5000, Formula One, Indy Cars (CART), Trans Am, Touring Cars, the ever-present celebrity races, Grand Am, ALMS, and just about anything else you can think of. The promoters have never shied away from being inventive or giving a slot to the latest fad.
Long Beach has endured against the odds. Few venues have had as many changes to a circuit layout and had them accepted by the racing fraternities. The fans keep returning because, much like Sebring, it's an excuse to have a party, lots of flash, glamour, a post-race concert and a real culture clash.
Thursday evening before this year's event, I was talking with drivers from the Farnbacher Porsche team, discussing the recent round of the FIA GT Series, and differences in racing between here and Europe. When chat turned to the morning practice session, I brought up the early days of the LBGP and where the pits were located on Ocean Boulevard. This brought a pause. They couldn't believe it. Then it hit me: none of these drivers had been born when Ocean was part of the LBGP circuit. I waited for the inevitable question: "Why aren't they using it now?" then answered with the usual excuses-safety, permits and feasibility-whereas I didn't have any idea and never bothered to look into it. But I did tell them of my own experience on Ocean.
In the mid-'80s, Porsche was winning race after race: Daytona, Sebring, Le Mans, etc. Its American advertising agency decided to film a spot celebrating the recent triumph at La Sarthe and built up a row of pit boxes ( la Le Mans). Two IMSA 962s were brought in for filming, with one redone in the graphics of the factory Rothmans team. I was to drive a 935 as fast as I could past the faade of a pit box, time my shift for flames to belch out of the exhaust, then stand on the brakes before hitting an embankment that was approximately 50 yards ahead.
This was done at least 20 times with varying results and the 935 started to load up and misfire. I brought along a friend from Andial and he suggested we take a run down Shoreline. He would sit in the back and play with the ignition boxes, hoping to clear out the plugs. So there I was, blasting down part of the GP circuit. It was going to take at least two full laps and I found myself on Ocean with a clear run. All common sense went away and I knew the reputation of the local police department didn't mean much at the time.
Wham. My friend was bounced around like a ball in a bingo cage as I made the turn onto Shoreline and eventually back to the filming area. The car ran much better after that. Too bad they didn't use any of the footage, but I have the mocked-up 24 Heures Du Mans sign from the pits hanging in my garage.
The ALMS recently renewed its commitment to run at Long Beach, although this may have been done in haste, without holding out for a better slot in the program. Sports car and GT races have often been used as curtain raisers for open-wheel events. There's no reason to expect that narrow mindset will change. The LBGP is about Indy-type cars and the celebrity race. Everything else is tied for ninth place.
Do the fans feel that way? Not according to the unscientific poll I conducted during the event. I asked over 100 individuals (whom I had never previously met) if they would continue to come out and support the LBGP weekend if open-wheel cars were not the top billing and were replaced with the ALMS show. Seventy-nine said yes. The ALMS is running the most technical show America and shouldn't have to use a bathroom as a dressing room. Stand up and be counted.